Twenty years ago Friday, Radiohead released Kid A, the landmark experimental record that declared the most interesting rock band in the world wanted to do more than just rock. To mark the occasion, The Ringer is putting everything in its right place, ranking the band’s best tracks and exploring the myth of Kid A. Now just don’t disappear completely.
You will never vibe with Kid A, the fourth album from the popular English rock band Radiohead, as hard as my buddy Chas vibed with it during a Midwestern off-campus house party in the fall of 2000. (Listen, this record has inspired millions of words of fervent critical analysis; in honor of its 20th birthday, indulge me in this amusing personal anecdote.) The alcoholic beverage of choice at this party was likely either Woodchuck (tasty, sophisticated) or Natural Light (no). Attendance felt sparse until a low, ominous hum wafting from a back hallway led me to a closed bedroom door; opening it, I discovered eight to 10 young gentlemen sitting in rapt silence and bathed in near-darkness and listening to … I forget the exact song, but “Idioteque” is the funniest option in this scenario, so let’s say “Idioteque.”
And there, at the front of the room, as if delivering his dissertation or leading a yoga class or starting a cult, was my buddy Chas, back turned to his congregation, extra rapt, eyes closed, and resting his forehead lovingly on the stereo. I dared not laugh. I dared not cross the threshold. I shut the door. I let them be. But yeah, I got it.
Kid A, though officially released on October 2, 2000, was available to the internet-savvy for weeks prior, and lived as a galaxy of possibilities (or a black hole of alluring nullities) in the heads of millions of young music obsessives for months if not years prior. It was, quite simply, the future; it is a struggle, even now, to think of it as an artifact from the past. And the most striking aspect of this record’s legacy, especially now, is less the way it sounded than the way many of us listened to it, and talked about it, and worshipped it.
In the ’90s, Radiohead had slowly mutated from trashy one-hit alt-rock chuckleheads (still a great song) to grouchy amp-thrashing doom-prophets (still a great video) to celestial art-rock saviors (still one of the greatest 40-second stretches in the history of recorded sound). Indeed, their third album, 1997’s OK Computer, was a majestically dour guitar-god supernova that more or less ended the 20th century three years early, and kick-started a new epoch with increasingly little time for guitars, or for that matter for gods.
OK Computer was my favorite album of all time in the year 2000, and it had made Radiohead near universally beloved; in response, the band took great pains to make sure we knew how alienated and miserable all that love had made them. (The anxiety-ridden 1998 documentary Meeting People Is Easy, for example, is the grimmest portrait of rock-star success ever painted.)
Thanks to a mysterious and thriving and relatively nontoxic newish phenomenon called “the internet,” early word on the uneasy gestation of Kid A—via terse interviews, via mixed reviews of recent live gigs, via guitarist Ed O’Brien’s cheerful but worrisome online diary—suggested that Radiohead intended to deconstruct, if not outright demolish, the very notion of Radiohead, thoroughly and laboriously. A (fairly straightforward!) song called “Knives Out” would reportedly require 313 hours of studio time to complete and then not even make the album, relegated instead to the looser 2001 follow-up, Amnesiac. Nothing came easy, and the easiest stuff came hardest of all.
This artistic and physical and emotional labor—and the baffled rapture with which Radiohead fans followed it, on and offline—is a core component of author, critic, podcaster, and Ringer luminary Steven Hyden’s new book, This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century. Sure, Hyden provides a thorough primer on the sound of Kid A. The slow fade of MTV Buzz Bin guitars from the forefront. Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s pivot instead to the eerie oscillations of his beloved ondes Martenot (a theremin-esque instrument invented in late-1920s France). Singer Thom Yorke’s increased fascination with the icy electronic music of powerhouse label Warp Records. And the sense that rock might be actually dead for good this time.
It’s true that if you’ve got any inclination to read a whole book about this record, you can likely already summon its musical highlights from memory: the mesmerizing 30th-century ambient wash of opener “Everything in Its Right Place,” the skronking free-jazz horn section that obliterates “The National Anthem,” the cracked-ice-dance-floor menace of “Idioteque,” the crushing anti-power-ballad gorgeousness of “How to Disappear Completely.” One of this book’s epigraphs is Yorke lamenting that “It annoys me how pretty my voice is”; throughout the album, his vocals are so thoroughly garbled, digitally and otherwise, that the few lines you can even make out, from “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon” to “I’m lost at sea / Don’t bother me,” take on an almost biblical importance. Kid A, for a certain generation of rock (and rock-is-dead) fanatics, is a text so foundational you might not need to ever hear it again, let alone read about it.
But Hyden truly excels at illuminating the context of Kid A, from the prerelease expectations (its relative lack of guitars aside, the album was nowhere near the avant-garde freakout some music magazines feared) to the oft-rapturous reviews (especially the florid Pitchfork rave that helped birth a rock-critic empire) to the music’s ultimate legacy. (Hyden gently notes that another October 2000 record, Linkin Park’s diamond-selling Hybrid Theory, proved to be just slightly more commercially viable and influential.) From the very day it came out, you could never quite hear Kid A free of all the noise in your head about what this album means, what hybrid sound it allegedly gave birth to, what antiquated sound it allegedly killed, what grim future it foretold.
One important piece of that context is the Y2K scare, hilarious in retrospect but a huge, ominous, known-unknown deal at the time. However many thousands of studio hours it took, the whole of Kid A was recorded amid the genuine fear that at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, computers might plunge the world into darkness in one terrible finger-snap moment. What makes this record sound half-prophetic and half-dated in 2020 is that in truth, computers would instead plunge the world into darkness by agonizing degrees over the next 20 years.
Close enough, as predictions go. This explains how my memory of my buddy Chas attempting to mind-meld with his stereo as Yorke mumbled “Ice age coming / Ice age coming” can be both delightful and upsetting, the fame-addled rock star stuck halfway between overly paranoid and not paranoid enough. Talking about this record on the internet isn’t as fun as it was in 2000, but what the hell is? And if hearing or even thinking about this record isn’t as gratifying as it was in 2000, well, what the hell ever could be?